From the Archive: Women Look to the Future

women's day off iceland

On October 24, 1975, women across Iceland went on strike to demonstrate the importance of their labour, both professional and domestic. Known as kvennafrídagurinn, or Women’s Day Off, some 90% of Icelandic women participated in the labour action. Shortly after, in 1976, Iceland passed its first legislation on gender pay equality, and though little was fixed overnight, it was a step in the right direction. Since the initial 1975 strike, Women’s Day Off has been held several times, with women symbolically leaving work early to demonstrate the still-extant pay gap. As of 2022, the unadjusted gender pay gap in Iceland was 9.1%.

Given the importance of this day, the editorial staff of Iceland Review was surprised to find no coverage of the original 1975 strike in our archives. It was only in 1985, after another 10-year anniversary strike, that the magazine’s editorial team covered the burgeoning women’s rights movement.

If progressive legislation on gender pay equality is still relatively young in Iceland (trailing the US Equal Pay Act of 1963 by more than a decade, for instance), many mindsets and attitudes have likewise only changed in the surprisingly recent past. Norms can change quickly, and although Iceland is often hailed as a beacon of social progress, this history is in many ways still a young one. And while our coverage (or lack thereof) of Women’s Day Off shows that change does sometimes happen overnight, social progress is not something that plays out automatically in history. History is moved when people come together and act, like so many Icelandic women did in 1975.

NB: This archival content first appeared in Iceland Review in 1986. As such, it may not reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

The meeting was the most unforgettable I have ever taken part in. It convinced me that though a huge meeting of men of the same mind might influence the authorities when women achieve such conviction, the foundations of society creak,” commented Adalheidur Bjarnfredsdottir, union leader and one of three speakers on Iceland’s famous Women’s Day in 1975. On 24th October, Icelandic women staged a one-day stoppage both at home and in the workplace, marking the beginning of the United Nations Decade for Women. Women drew attention to the importance of their work with the largest open-air meeting ever held in Iceland, attended by 25,000 people at Laekjartorg in central Reykjavik.

The clearest single indication of the achievements of the Decade for Women, which has just come to an end, is the election of a woman, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, to the presidency in 1980. Not simply a symbol of national unity and a splendid representative of her country on her travels abroad. President Vigdis presents living proof that women’s campaign for equal rights involves deeds as well as words. Many of her backers during the run-up to the election were men, and she was elected by voters of both sexes – proof that great strides have been taken towards real equality. The individual is no longer judged by sex but for his or her own character.

Marking the end of the Decade for Women, new surveys on the status of women in Iceland have confirmed various established facts, while also revealing that men and women in Iceland have enjoyed equal educational rights since the passing of legislation in 1911. But in spite of eight decades of nominal equality, the roles of men and women still differ greatly, both in education and at work.

Over 90% of student teachers and nurses are women, while only a handful of female students can be found at the Technical College, agricultural colleges, and the Marine College. The last decade has, however, seen women make a strong bid for education, and since 1980 over 40% of graduates from the University of Iceland have been women, as against only 20% in 1975-6. The majority are still graduating with a BA degree in the humanities or with a BSc in nursing, while men dominate the Faculty of Engineering and Science.

women's day off iceland

According to statistics from 1983, women made up 43.5% of the workforce, while their wages were only 29.3% of total income. Married women, 24.8% of the workforce, earned only 16.7% of the total. Although women in unskilled occupations now suffer little pay discrimination, among the university-educated, the gap between men’s and women’s salaries has, if anything, widened, but this factor reflects women’s choice of subject at university level. Women earn only 65% of the national average wage per man-year, which has hardly changed since 1980; this indicates that women predominate in the lowest-paid categories.

In “Women, What Next?,” a book which reviews women’s achievements over the past decade, Marge Thome puts forward the interesting theory that low pay is one of the factors which influences Icelandic women to bear more children (2-3) than the average western European. The wife’s wages make such a relatively insignificant contribution to the household that she feels able to stay at home with her children for several years. In many cases, she has no choice, as only 8.9% of children aged 2 to 5 are provided with full-time day nursery care, and the majority of places are allotted to priority groups such as single parents and students. About 35% of children aged 2 to 5 can attend playschool for half the working day. Childminders are in great demand, as about 80% of Icelandic women go out to work either full- or part-time.

Although President Vigdi’s Finnbogadottir has set a spectacular precedent, Icelandic women in general have a difficult time reaching positions of leadership. In the Althing (parliament), women only hold nine of the sixty seats, and in the seventy years since female suffrage became a reality, only 17 women have been elected to Althing. Two women have held ministerial portfolios, and five have been ministerial under-secretaries.

Women have done better in local politics, and in three districts women hold 40% of council seats; but on the other hand, 50% of local councils include no woman at all, mostly in rural areas. In the past decade, the number of women in managerial positions in the civil service has risen by 7%, and women have become increasingly active in the trade union movement.

Compared with women in general around the world, Icelandic women have a good many advantages. They live to an average age of 80 years – and generally the Icelanders and Japanese lead the world in longevity. This indicates the high standard of health care, which is almost unparalleled, especially with regard to maternity and child health. In the 1960s, preventive health care for women was spotlighted by a mass campaign against cervical cancer, the second most common form of the disease in Icelandic women. The campaign has produced tangible results in the form of a dramatic drop in the incidence of cervical cancer and greatly improved chances of cure. A similar mass screening service is now being introduced for breast cancer.

It was never claimed that women would achieve full equality by the end of the Decade for Women, but surveys show women gaining ground in every field, especially in the arts. The number of women in the Writers’ Association, for instance, has doubled in the past ten years, and women are clearly not resting on their laurels, even though their decade may be over.

Rare Bird Flu Detected in Eagle and Eider Duck

White-tailed Eagle Haförn Hafernir

A white-tailed eagle and an eider duck found dead in Iceland in September both tested positive for a severe strain of bird flu that has never been detected in Iceland before. The risk of infection for poultry and other other birds in captivity is low, according to the Food and Veterinary Authority.

Samples taken from a white-tailed eagle found dead on a skerry near Barðaströnd in the Westfjords in mid-September tested positive for a severe bird flu virus of the strain HPAI H4N5. An eider duck that was found dead in Ólafsfjörður, West Iceland recently was infected with the same strain of bird flu virus. The strain has not been detected in Iceland before and is not common.

Spread of bird flu low

The samples were studied at the University of Iceland’s Keldur Institute for Experimental Pathology. The results underline the importance of ensuring good infection prevention when dealing with poultry and other birds in captivity. Based on the data available at this point in time, however, it can be assumed that the spread of avian influenza viruses is low in Iceland and the risk of infection for poultry and other birds in captivity is therefore low.

Sequencing may determine origin

Few reports of sick or dead wild birds have been received by the Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) since spring, after reports of widespread bird deaths among kittiwakes, puffins, and other seabirds subsided. Sample tested by MAST ruled out bird flu as the cause of those deaths.

As of July, only five samples have been taken from wild birds. Three of them tested negative for bird flu, while the two mentioned above tested positive. Researchers are hoping to sequence the samples of the viruses in order to determine whether the new strain arrived from Europe or from migratory birds arriving in late summer from nesting sites in the western Atlantic. HPAI H5N5 has been detected in only four samples in Europe recently, all from wild birds in Norway and Sweden, and in a few samples from wild birds, red foxes, and skunks in eastern Canada.

 

The Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) reminds the public that reporting sick and dead wild birds is a key element in monitoring the presence and spread of bird flu.

Stricter Policy for Fish Farms Following Escapes

Golli. Norwegian divers catch escaped farmed salmon in an Icelandic river, October 2023

Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir presented the draft of a new legal framework for fish farming in Iceland yesterday. The draft proposes increased monitoring of fish farms and requiring licence holders to pay “a fair price” for the use of natural resources. Escaped salmon from open-net fish farms in the Westfjords have been found in rivers across Northwest Iceland and the Westfjords in recent weeks, threatening the survival of the country’s wild salmon.

“Fee collection from the sector must reflect that [fish farming] is a matter of utilising limited resources,” Svandís stated. “It is fundamental that those who profit from the use of the country’s natural resources pay a fair price for it. But it is equally important that we set ourselves ambitious, measurable goals in environmental matters and set a timetable on the way to those goals.” The objectives and strategy in the draft extend to the year 2040 and the action plan to the year 2028.

Companies can lose farming licences if fish escape

The draft also includes additional funding for research and monitoring of fish farms, to be carried out by the Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) and the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (Hafrannsóknastofnun). At a press conference yesterday, the Head Secretary of the Food and Agriculture Ministry Kolbeinn Árnason stated that the new regulations would be enforce through the introduction of both positive and negative incentives.

“With tax incentives on the one hand, positive incentives so that people invest in equipment so that the risk [of escaped fish] will be lower,” Kolbeinn stated. “Then we have negative incentives, which include that the company will bear responsibility for escape incidents. The consequences for a company of such an escape will be in the form of the government stripping that company of a permanent fish farming licence.”

Read More: Damning Report on Iceland’s Fish Farming Industry

The draft regulations also propose limiting farming in each fjord to a single company in order to facilitate investigation in the case of escaped fish and to limit the spread of disease. There are currently multiple fjords where more than one company is operating fish farms, particularly in the Westfjords. Companies would have until 2028 to swap licences so that only one company is operating in each zone.

Open-net salmon farms dominate industry

Open-net fish farming in Icelandic waters has grown more than tenfold between 2014 and 2021. Yearly production rose from under 4,000 tonnes to nearly 45,000 tonnes over this period. More than 99% of that production was farmed salmon.

The export value of agricultural products in 2021 was more than ISK 36 billion [$254 million; 237 million]. Most of that figure, or 76%, was farmed salmon, according to RÚV. The aquaculture industry has played a role in supporting development in the Westfjords and Eastfjords, but the largest fish farming companies in Iceland are Norwegian-owned. Escaped salmon from fish farms threatens the survival of wild salmon in Iceland through genetic mixing as well as the spread of disease.